The main road into Baquba, thirty miles northeast of Baghdad, is closed by US Army Humvees and tanks. A column of smoke rises from the outskirts of the city. The mid-morning of Thursday, June 24–less than a week before the “handover” of sovereignty in Iraq–is turning out to be hot, hazy and very violent.
Four major Iraqi towns have broken into open rebellion: In the north, Mosul was ripped by five car bombs, leaving more than 200 wounded and many dead. To the west, in Falluja, insurgents repelled a Marine assault and withstood aerial bombing, while further west, in Ramadi, the resistance attacked several police stations. Other small attacks were reported in hamlets throughout central Iraq.
In Baquba, where the rebellion is most intense, the action began at 5 am, when local mujahedeen attacked a US patrol with RPGs, killing two GIs and wounding seven. Forty-five minutes later, mujahedeen units overran and destroyed part of the police station, killing an estimated twenty Iraqis, seven of them cops. The US military responded by dropping three 500-pound bombs on muj positions near the Baquba soccer field. By midday, US Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was admitting that Baquba was out of US control. But at 9 am, no one in Baghdad knew any of this.
By 10 am my colleague Dahr Jamail and our translator, Abu Talat, a tough but jolly retired army captain, are headed north from Baghdad; all we’ve heard are rumors that there’s unrest to the south of Baquba, with civilian casualties arriving at the local hospital. We’ll try to enter the city and visit the hospital to see what’s going on. At the town’s main entrance we bypass the first US military roadblock and approach from another side.
Five miles on, there’s another roadblock. A small cluster of cars and trucks idle in a fearful knot. Across some 500 yards of empty, shimmering blacktop sit two mean-looking Humvees, their guns pointed at the stalled traffic.
“The city is closed,” says an Iraqi trucker, throwing his hands up in frustration. But after a moment we see dust rising from a rough plain of cropland and irrigation canals to the south. A few vehicles are leaving Baquba, and a few others are headed in the opposite direction, trying to circumvent the blockade by crossing the fields on rutted farming roads.
We follow the dust, heading off the main road through the fields and then through the street grid of a now-flattened and overgrown former military base. The facility was destroyed during the US invasion of 2003; now poor squatters live in the few barracks still standing.
In the sky to our left, beyond some palm groves, appear two Apache helicopter gunships circling low over Baquba, occasionally dipping and diving; they look like they are strafing. The situation seems worse that we had thought, but we drive on.
Then, several hundred yards ahead, we see a Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked in an empty lot, facing out, toward us. From behind it, along a tree-lined street, come five tanks. Just as we turn right, away from the Bradley, three or four shots crack past our vehicle in what feels like a long, slow succession. In the back seat, I hit the floor. Luckily, the right turn puts some buildings between us and the Bradley that fired at us, or perhaps over us.
“That was not the sound of the gun. That was bullets passing us,” says Abu Talat. That means the rounds were close. Now the tanks seem to be following us, but they continue past as we turn again along a street with trees, some walls and the first real houses on the edge of Baquba. At this point we don’t dare turn back or continue along the town’s edge.
In the heart of the city, the streets are empty and all shops are shuttered. The few cars we see are usually taxis full of young men cruising around–probably mujahedeen patrols. Some of them eye us suspiciously.
Overhead we hear drones, and from our left the occasional clatter of the Apache choppers, but there is no gunfire in the streets, no armed fighters in sight. As the numb fear from the close call with the Bradley fades, I begin to feel trapped and sick with dread. Even Abu Talat seems nervous.
“Boys, we are in a bad situation. Yes, very bad,” he says, as if commenting on the intense heat. The goal now is to find a certain religious sheik we know before running into any mujahedeen checkpoints–the local fighters might be cool, or they might kill us.
The sheik’s store is closed, but we interview two men out front. They tell us of the dawn attacks, that the muj hold the city and that US forces have been driven out. We keep looking for the sheik, asking questions of the few men we see on the streets. They tell us the chief of police has had his home burned down by mujahedeen.
We visit one mosque, then another. At the second mosque, an old man, Haji Feissal, agrees to take us to the sheik’s home by a circuitous drive through the empty market. He says there have been sporadic firefights and some tank incursions all morning.
We head deeper still into Baquba’s narrow side streets, closer to the Apaches. As we cross each intersection, our nerves are taut with anxiety, not knowing who or what is down the next street. But we have to find the sheik. That’s how things are done in Iraq: If you know an important local your chances of survival go up dramatically. If you wander around alone without contacts, you find trouble.
By the grace of god our friend the sheik is at home and receives us warmly; he even speaks English. He demands that we stay for lunch and tea in his diwan, or sitting room. The walls are painted blue and decorated with a beautiful Chinese print, framed Koranic verse and a small piece of thrift-store-style art of a coy little girl.
In the past four days US forces had been conducting operations just south of town. Apart from the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, it was the only real combat occurring in the past two weeks. We ask if this fighting is part of that.
“No, this time the mujahedeen attacked. The United States is on the defensive,” says the sheik. “The resistance sent out fliers warning us to stay in today, and they attacked at dawn.” At several points our interview is interrupted by a series of huge explosions. They sound very close.
“Mr. Christian, do not be so scared,” says the sheik. “These are just for sound, to scare us. But for us, we’ve had so much war it is normal.” He’s so calm I start suspecting that he’s high on Valium, which is sold over the counter in Iraq and used by millions to cope with the stress of war.
The sheik says the Americans cut power to the whole city as part of their siege, but other than that his story is similar to the one offered by the First Infantry Division: The muj attacked first, and the United States responded with tanks, helicopters and warplanes but are still stuck on the edge of town.
“The fighters here are very well armed and well prepared. They have Kalashnikovs and RPGs,” says the sheik. Why this uprising? “We do not like the occupation. Look, everything is smashed–no electricity, no security, nothing gets fixed. People have no work. They are sick of waiting,” says the sheik. “The Tartars occupied us, the Turks occupied us, the British. All were driven out. The West cannot win this fight.”
The sheik’s brother adds: “When the resistance is from inside Iraq I put my hand with them. But we do not like the foreign fighters, the Saudis or Syrians.” He is simultaneously dismissing claims that Al Qaeda is running the rebellion and acknowledging the controversial presence of internationalist mujahedeen.
Lunch is served. We sit on cushions on the floor and eat from a big tray. Then tea is served, and we get a disquisition from the sheik on all the secular aspects of the Koran. Outside, things have quieted down. It’s been an hour at least with no bombs, no shooting and no choppers overhead. The sheik’s brother says fifteen or more civilians are dead. We had wanted to go to the hospital, but it was too close to the muj positions downtown. We decide it’s time to go before the fighting starts again. We thank the sheik and start to leave.
“Every man has his fate,” says the sheik as we climb back into the car. “If you die here today it is the will of God. Don’t worry. It is all in God’s hands.” This attempt to reassure me fails.
The main road out of Baquba is empty and lined with eucalyptus trees. Just before we get to the highway, we pass a car straddling the median; it’s shot full of holes. A corpse is sprawled in the street, and the ground is covered in blood and oil. A hundred feet ahead are the obvious scars of tank or Bradley tread marks and a heap of spent brass shells from a 50-caliber machine gun. We stop to take photos, but then Abu Talat sees a van and some men lurking in the trees near road. “No, let’s go,” he says.
We drive away fast, then lurch to a halt. “Humvees!” says Abu Talat. I can’t even see them at first. They’re about a half-mile off, at the end of the wide, empty road. We pull over, not sure what to do: We have the muj behind us and trigger-happy US troops ahead.
We’ll have to walk out. Dahr and I leave our gear with Abu Talat and–with our hands in the air, press passes held high–start the trek toward US lines. When we’re equidistant between the fresh corpse behind us and the guns ahead, we start yelling, “American journalists, don’t shoot!”
When we reach the GIs they are mellow, spaced out from the heat, tired. Some seem a bit freaked out about having killed the motorist down the road. “He rammed a tank, that’s why we lit him up,” says one soldier. It seems an unlikely story–the car bore no sign of collision. Perhaps the car was speeding and a soldier got scared, thought it was a car bomb and opened up. The troops clear us to pass. I walk back for Abu Talat; they search the car and then we race at top speed back to Baghdad.
“Boys! That was 100 percent dangerous,” chides Abu Talat, in his avuncular, military way. “But I think my wife will be very happy to see me when I get back tonight.” He grins. And then, as if to warn us for real, he says, “You know, all the modern Iraqi revolutions–they always happen in July.”